KU's elite eight get it done again
AUSTIN, Texas -- If you're looking for the indicators as to why top-ranked Kansas has separated itself from the rest of the Big 12, and is firmly in an elite handful of teams that can win the national title, then the win over Texas on Monday night served up plenty of answers.
Kansas played eight. The eight that coach Bill Self said give his Jayhawks the best chance to win, even though that might not be the best thing for the program in the long term. (Freshmen Elijah Johnson and Thomas Robinson didn't play a minute in Austin.)
Meanwhile, Texas played 12 as coach Rick Barnes still finds himself searching for the right combinations more than halfway through the conference season.
Kansas beat the 14th-ranked Longhorns 80-68, despite a combined 5-for-23 shooting line from team leaders Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich. Collins was just 3-of-13 and Aldrich was 2-of-10 before fouling out. But Marcus Morris (18 points on 7-of-10 shooting) and Xavier Henry (15 points, breaking a streak of five straight single-digit scoring outputs) provided enough pop to offset the projected star production.
Kansas (23-1, 9-0 Big 12) smacked a 22-0 run on Texas (19-5, 5-4) in the first half after the Longhorns had built a quick 14-8 lead. That shouldn't happen in a game between the two most talented teams in the league -- the teams that started the season No. 1 and No. 3 in the preseason polls.
"I don't know what it is," Self said. "Our guys expect to win. We haven't beaten ourselves, although we've tried. We beat ourselves against Tennessee."
That is the lone loss on KU's record. That game came after the near-miss against Cornell, and the Vols had the emotional wave of playing four players down in front of a fired-up crowd desperate to cheer about anything.
That seems like ancient history, though. The possibility of an undefeated Big 12 season is now more plausible than ever. And a sixth straight conference title is all but assured at this point.
Now, Kansas could lose at Texas A&M on Monday in College Station. A rivalry game at Missouri on March 6 is always a possible roadblock. But it's hard to buy into Oklahoma State's beating KU on Feb. 27 in Stillwater given the way the Cowboys have been sliding. And Iowa State, Colorado and Oklahoma haven't displayed the consistency to win on the road at Phog Allen. If there is one home game the Jayhawks might drop, it would of course be to Kansas State on March 3. Those two slugged it out through overtime not long ago.
After all, despite having now beaten three RPI top-25 teams on the road (Temple, Kansas State, Texas), KU has been challenged at home by Cornell, Baylor and Nebraska.
"Our guys, when they feel challenged, they're more focused," said Self, who disputes that the Jayhawks haven't played as well at home. "Our guys are usually at their best when they feel threatened. We haven't been great at home, but it's not as bad as what people say."
Aldrich said the win at K-State came in an environment like no other, and the win at the Texas' Erwin Center on Monday night was another "great one."
"I don't know, we're still amped up to play in the Fieldhouse, but we get careless at home a bit," Aldrich said. "We had only 10 turnovers here. Cornell was to the very end. Nebraska was real close. Baylor was another one. Teams come in ready to knock us off."
Collins said that lack of concentration at times has hurt the Jayhawks. But the KU players are not tentative. Aldrich said the development of Morris, a sophomore, and Henry's getting through his freshman wall has produced productive players who don't need to wait for Collins or himself to make a play. The Jayhawks too often relied on that pair last season.
And now the scary thing for KU's opponents is how much better the Jayhawks can be over the final month of the regular season.
"I think Sherron can play better," Self said. "I think we can get more consistent play from Xavier. In all honesty, our first-shot defense hasn't been that bad. We're rebounding the ball better. But we need to play faster offensively. We don't get nearly as much on transition as we could."
So Self found a few warts. They are there to pick -- Kentucky and Syracuse and Villanova could also find ones of their own. Every quality team has had its dud moment, or a stretch of futility that has led to a loss, some worse than others.
But one thing is certain: Kansas will win the Big 12, earn the top seed in the conference tournament and a top seed in the NCAAs. The three-game lead in the standings over Kansas State and Texas A&M, and now four games over Texas, won't dwindle to the point that KU should get too concerned. The Jayhawks are plugging along with a Big 12 regular-season championship in sight, a possible tournament title in nearby Kansas City, and then the likely advantage of being the No. 1 seed in the Midwest, with the NCAA regional in St. Louis.
"We just love winning on the road," Aldrich said. "That's the one thing we said coming into the Big 12 season. Coach and Sherron were telling us if we want to win the league, we have to win on the road. And we did at Kansas State and here."
There are more opportunities to come, and the atmosphere in College Station and Columbia has the potential for jet-noise level.
But there is little that leads you to believe the Jayhawks will wilt. Even if they were to lose, they hardly appear to be a team that will collapse under pressure anytime soon.
They certainly didn't Monday.
Another test. Another passing grade.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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